Monday, March 29, 2010

Boney was a warrior

This month I have been mostly reading about Napoleon, for reasons of my own that may one day be shared with the world.

It's very inconvenient to have your preconceptions overthrown by facts, though that is what was achieved by Vincent Cronin's Napoleon. This was only slightly offset by a more traditional / prejudice matching view of the man in Christopher Hibbert's Napoleon: His Wives and Women. My view had always been: fine while he stayed at home in France, stabilising the country after the madness of the Revolution; batty but forgivable that he became Emperor; bad when he decided to export the benefits of his rule to the rest of Europe, mostly against their will. Either way, a lesser man than, say, Cromwell, another successful revolutionary general who ended up assuming supreme power but did have the humility not to accept the crown when it was offered to him; and a mere shade of, say, Washington, a successful revolutionary general who served two elected terms as the first president of his new republic and then quietly retired.

Well ...

Hibbert's is the more accessible book because it is mostly about the personalities involved and just assumes that you know the gist of the history. Thus he can make throwaway lines like "the Russian campaign was a disaster" or "Napoleon had decided to escape from Elba". But Cronin's book actually looks at the whys, not just the whats, and it suddenly gets more complex.

Why had Napoleon decided to escape from Elba? After all, he was happy there. He was a strong believer in fate; he was quite ready to accept that it was no longer his time to be Emperor of the French. The Treaty of Fontainebleau set him up as King of Elba and he was quietly, happily modernising the island under relatively enlightened rule. But he was slowly going bankrupt, because even though the new French regime had undertaken to pay him a pension for the rest of his life, not a single franc of it ever emerged. It was a bit of petty parsimonious spite on behalf of the restored ancien regime that could so easily have been rectified and spared everyone so much trouble.

The Russian campaign was indeed a disaster and he made a lot of bad decisions - but why did it happen in the first place? Because like almost every war Napoleon got involved in after becoming Emperor, he was attacked first. Napoleon badly wanted peace, but of course he wanted it on his terms and allies kept turning against him. The best form of defence is attack. Problem was, the other European powers loathed him. He was showing that you can overthrow your divinely constituted hereditary monarchy and still have strong, stable government. This was not a message they wanted to see spread about.

Napoleon made his reputation as a general in a series of European campaigns – which were technically conquests, but very often he was throwing out another occupying European power and got greeted by the locals as a liberator. He would then set up a buffer state which, yes, would be a French satellite but would still be a republic based on egalitarian revolutionary principles which were a lot better than what had gone before.

Hibbert says Napoleon returned from the Egyptian campaign, his last outing as mere General Bonaparte, determined to take power in France. Again, Cronin goes a little deeper. When Napoleon left France for Egypt (to cut Britain off from India: perfectly understandable tactic) France was at war with Britain only. Then there was a long period of several months when he was cut off from home with no news; and then he learned that the revolutionary government had brilliantly managed to get itself into a war with five other powers besides. What was he supposed to do?

And so he went home, and overthrew the government, and got himself set up as First Consul. And he did manage to make peace, at the Treaty of Amiens. It broke down after a year with fault on both sides.

He may have been a little to eager too accept the offer of becoming Emperor when it was made: but the fact is, it was made, by the Senate, which had been elected by the people in as fair an election as you were going to get anywhere in the Europe of the day. Who elected King Louis? Napoleon made peace with the church, he let the exiled emigres return without having their heads cut off, and for the next ten years (if you overlook the ongoing European wars) France flourished socially, culturally and scientifically as a meritocratic republic.

Before going into exile, he remarked that if the returning Bourbons had any sense, they would change nothing but the sheets on his bed. They didn't, of course, they tried to roll back the clock as if the last 30 years hadn't happened. And look how well that turned out.

But, before you start wondering who has kidnapped Ben and hacked his blog to start writing all this francophile bilge, let's look at a few other harsh facts. I've been talking about Napoleon the Emperor. Napoleon the man was without doubt a git: infantile sense of humour, socially inept, coarse, quite astonishingly vulgar, chauvinist and hypocritical in his philandering while expecting his wives to be unerringly faithful to him (though he's not unique here ...) and unable to trust or share power to anyone other than his own family. He was a brilliant general, at first – but his enemies learned off him and adapted to his tactics, while he just kept using the same tactics over and over again.

I'm, prepared to forgive him a lot, though, for the sheer entertainment value of his remaining years on St Helena, taking childish delight in winding up the po-faced British governor. The poor man had to be able to guarantee at any time of the day or night that General Bonaparte was still on the island. Napoleon would hide behind closed shutters so that no one outside the house could be quite sure.

One thing neither book mentions is that the principle medical officer on St Helena, and one of the men who signed Napoleon's death certificate, was Dr Thomas Shortt, whose descendants include yours truly. A minor oversight in two very absorbing and complementary insights into Napoleon's life.

My favourite anecdote is from Cronin's book and does not actually involve Napoleon. After the restoration, an aristo wandered into the navy office one day in Paris and announced that he wanted to be a Rear Admiral. His reasoning was that he had been a cadet officer before the Revolution, and had he stayed in the navy he would have enjoyed a glittering career and would be a Rear Admiral by now. So, kindly see to it.

The navy officials thought about it, and came back with a pretty good answer: yes, in the parallel universe where there was no Revolution, he did indeed enjoy a glittering naval career ... right up until the time he tragically died at Trafalgar. So, no promotion, sorry.


funny pictures of cats with captions

Sunday, March 28, 2010

My name in Dnepropetrovsk is cursed / when he finds out I publish first

J.K. Rowling is being sued (again) for alleged plagiarism. In this case the estate of the now-deceased author of the 30pp self-published Adventures of Willy the Wizard (published 1987) claims (a) that by some miracle Rowling became aware of this opus and nicked bits of it for Goblet of Fire, because (b) it is inconceivable, inconceivable I tell you that anyone else could possibly imagine a society of wizards taking everyday life as we know it (sports competitions, chess, trains) and adding their own magical twist to it. QED.

Prognostications for the plaintiff are not good and this may well be the last you hear of it.

If you want a case that just might have merit, however, tune into BBC1 on 10 April (and make sure you do because I'm calling you all as witnesses), which is when "The Beast Below", the second episode of the new Dr Who series will be shown. According to the Beeb's publicity lords:
"The Doctor takes Amy to the distant future, where she finds Britain in space. Starship UK houses the future of the British people, as they search the stars for a new home."
Sound of screeching brakes. Now, hold on just a minute! Starship UK? Starship UK?? Why, that's almost exactly the same as:
"UK-1 ... the largest spaceship ever built – seventeen massive wheels in space spinning around a common axis. The last redoubt of the exiled House of Windsor." (His Majesty's Starship, 1998)
Note that even though HMSS was published in 1998, I sent it to my agent in early 1995. Later in 1995 I spoke on the phone to Steven Moffat, then a mere script writer a decade before he would achieve the status of Hugo-winning Dr Who Deity with "The Empty Child" and 15 years before he would take over series production from Russell T. Davies. Now, my memories of the conversation are mainly that we coordinated ideas for our forthcoming stories in the Decalog 3 collection: but I put it to you, is it entirely impossible that the conversation could have gone:
[Gentle Scottish burr] "So, Ben, what else have you written?"

[Crisp, eager, slightly naive English accent] "Well, I've just turned in my first novel, which includes the UK in space, based on a giant spaceship and ruled by the guy who would be king if Britain was still a monarchy."

[Slightly more acquisitive Scottish burr] "Fascinating! Tell me more ..."
Not at all impossible, I'm sure you'll agree. The fact that I don't remember it is obviously because I dismissed it as unimportant. The phone call was about our stories, after all, not my novel, and anyway, I trusted the man, trusted, I tell you.

I will hold my horses for the time being. I have still to watch this episode, and I'll wait for Willy the Wizard vs Rowling's inevitable dismissal, because I wouldn't want my chances affected by any perceived similarity to such an obviously futile, money-grabbing case.

Friday, March 26, 2010

One's a march, one's a stroll

-but otherwise they're completely the same. I refer to two movie themes by Ron Goodwin, both beloved of Classic FM: 633 Squadron and The Trap (aka the London Marathon theme, played this morning). Orchestration the same, key changes the same ... just the notes are a little different.

Tell me I'm wrong.

Friday, March 19, 2010

God loves a cheerful giver

This is one of those posts where lots of separate strands of thought are whirling around and I need to write them down to see what I actually think. So, in no particular order and not in a way that maximises coherence:

A simple Google search to seek out the meanings of what I'm sure are very clever German jokes in Unseen Academicals led me to a Russian site with the full text of the book on it, copyright page and all. It's an Adobe Digital Edition, September 2009, ISBN 978-0-06-194203-7, but I will bet at least a fiver that it's not supposed to be on that particular site.

Hugh Cornwell, ex-frontman of the Stranglers, advocates giving away creative content for free online, as it will only stimulate sales. And he has some quite convincing statistics of follow-through sales to back it up. It's scary to think that the Stranglers could now be the kind of thing listened to by the parents of a generation old enough to vote – Hugh Cornwell and Val Doonican are in the same box – but his logic is sound: there's a whole generation now that could enjoy his music but probably hasn't heard of him, so how best to get in touch?

There is surely – isn't there? – a difference between me giving you something for free, and you taking something of mine because you like the look of it and for which you may or may not subsequently choose to pay. With anything other than creative online content, the latter behaviour would be theft, pure and simple. The only reason it isn't automatically theft here and now is ... well, what? Perception? Possibly.

The matter has been bouncing around the world of publishing for some time now, always given a little extra impetus by the like of Cory Doctorow, who is probably the leading advocate of "give it away for free and somehow make money from it too". It certainly works in his case: he seems to make an adequate living from doing just that. Or rather, perhaps, he makes an adequate living from being Cory Doctorow – a man of immense talent and energy with multiple income streams. Not everyone is gifted with being Cory Doctorow. Or Hugh Cornwell.

I am contributing to this in my own small way, though I don't think I'm big enough for my experience to generate reliable data one way or the other: my short stories are available, for free, online. My logic was that I had got all the money I was going to get from them, so why not? You can, if you want, buy them in a separate volume with value added in the form of authorial endnotes: for that you have to pay, but only enough to cover the cost of printing the thing in the first place. Likewise, His Majesty's Starship is (currently) available at cost only.

Of course, I don't need to be paid: I have a reasonably salaried job which I would probably want to hang onto even if the writing income suddenly skyrocketed. However, it would be interesting to see Mr Cornwell's reaction if young fans, having got hooked on his free downloads, started turning up at his gigs with the expectation of getting in without paying. The money that pays for the venue hire, for the equipment, for the salaries of the stagecrew and other staff ... well, that just comes from somewhere, dunnit?

Yup, it comes from you. Likewise, books and movies don't magically appear out of the ether. They are all the result of the work of many people. All those people need paying.

But always, always, always we hear that people expect stuff to be free ... A lot can come of expectation in the face of what established authority would like you to have. Magna Carta. The separation of power in democratic government. Things like that.

At the moment the governments of the UK and the US are tackling the matter: us with the Digital Economy Bill, them with the DMCA. This isn't the place to debate the rights and wrongs of these acts – see links at the end for that – but in terms of nutcracking they are both towards the sledgehammer end of the spectrum, and they are both far too friendly towards the big industry interests rather than the little guy. Put another way, they think little to nothing of criminalising innocent users as long as their income doesn't suffer. To the Mandelsons of this world that is a perfectly reasonable point of view. Further down the ladder, however ...

Let's go back to Magna Carta. No country has ever had a revolution out of perversity or because the people felt bored. Revolutions happen because of grievance. Those regimes that adapt to the revolutionary demands, by and large, continue, though with reduced power. Like, us, after the Restoration. Those regimes that don't adapt, don't even budge, fail. Like, the French monarchy. To retain overall control, you have to let go of a little of it.

So, I've finally decided what I think. It is right that publishers and other rights holders should make a profit from their activities – obviously. It is right that artists also make money for their endeavours – obviously. But, no one actually owes those artists a living, either. Harsh but true. If the creative income isn't keeping you alive: sorry, get a real job.

I'm not – yet – going to make my currently in-print novels freely available. However I won't rule it out as a future course of action if that finally, irrevocably seems to be the way the industry is going; and if my publishers decide to do it as some kind of promotional strategy, I won't stand in their way either. Let's be the Republic, not the Ancien Regime.

Further reading

Thursday, March 18, 2010

I knew there was a reason for the iPhone

You can read The Xenocide Mission on it.

But as I already have, I'll stick with the old downmarket Sony Ericsson for a while longer.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Still married

Sorry, ladies, the suddenly blingless fourth finger of my left hand means nothing at all. Well, nothing except that after three and a half years of marriage we have finally got round to getting our rings engraved. Nothing fancy, just names and the date of the event should either of us ever reach the stage of being unable to remember.

So, for the next fortnight I will have no way of communicating my marital status at a glance, and I will just have to revert to my bachelor habit of fighting off the women who throw themselves at me on a daily basis. Tchah!

Monday, March 08, 2010

Life is too short for bad fiction

Microcons aren't big (possible clue in the name, there) but Exeter University SF Society deserves huge credit for running them year after year after year - an unbroken line since 1982, indeed. The students get a gentle introduction to the harsh world of science fiction conventions. The - ahem - older guests get a reminder that there are still people out there prepared to love us, and put us up in a hotel for the night ("four star quality accommodation", they say, without specifying whose stars: oh, I like these people), and the joy of sharing our accumulated wisdom and experience.

Quite apart from a very nice meal at Exeter's Bella Italia - where paying the bill produced a nice real-world example of bistromathics - and my own talk, I particularly enjoyed Steve Green's valiant struggle with the laws of physics and optics to present some submissions to the Delta Film Award, in a room with no curtains, flooded with natural daylight. My two favourites are available on YouTube and I commend them to all my readers.

Pigeon: Impossible is just as good as those little shorts Pixar bundles with its big movies:

And Pink Five is ... well, it's fun.

And now, because I know you're all kicking yourselves at missing out, here is an edited down version of my talk.

Life is too short for bad fiction
Thoughts for this were sparked by a blog post from Charles Stross on 13 October last year, titled "why I hate Star Trek". In fact he wasn't specifically attacking Trek, rather he was attacking TVSF generally, and his gripe was the inevitable limitations of the TV medium for telling science fiction stories. Far too many of that post's 373 comments manage to miss the point completely, responding with something along the lines of "yes, what you say is true about every other show except [insert name of favourite show here]. You really ought to try it."

So, a couple of ground rules before I get into this.

First, please note: my purpose here is not to diss TVSF because unlike Charlie I'm quite a fan of it. So when we open this up to questions and discussions at the end, please don't put your hand up and say something like "yes, what you say is true about every other show except [insert name of favourite show here]. You really ought to try it."

Second, an acronym coined by Scott Adams: BOCTAOE – But Of Course There Are Obvious Exceptions. Nothing I say is intended to be the definitive statement of how things are, or even what I think. Feel free to tell me where you disagree, but don't tell me where I'm wrong because I probably already agree with you.

Third, although a lot of what I say also applies to science fiction movies it's primarily TV shows that I want to talk about. This is because SF movies don't even try to put the story first: by and large (BOCTAOE) they are all about the spectacle. If I want awe inspiring effects I watch Avatar – if I wanted a story I would watch Dances with Wolves. (As a discussion generating tangent, this is why so much New Who fails: RTD treats it as a movie when in fact it is a series. But this way lies diversion so I will get back to the point.)

Let's engage the imagination, briefly. From an unjustly neglected classic of science fiction, published in 1998, I'm going to describe the United Kingdom's first starship. Picture it in your mind's eye:

[I'll cut that here because you can always just buy the book ...]

If you're following the description, I can guarantee that every one of you is imagining a different ship - even if you've glanced at the version on the cover, which astonishingly was drawn by someone who seemed to have read the text. If X is the number of people who read it then with 234 words of crisp, clinical prose I have created X versions of a spaceship. If HMSS was a movie - and the fact that it isn't I can only put down to oversight on Hollywood's part - they would spend far too much on generating an immaculate, highly detailed, utterly convincing CGI image to create exactly one version of the ship.

And in 10 years time, that CGI image would look so laughably dated. If you doubt me, look at an early episode of Babylon 5.

Now imagine - and believe me, I have imagined it, many times - HMSS got made into a series. It would have an ensemble cast, which is lovely, until one of the actors decides to move on or falls under a bus or is just not very good. They get replaced. This must be written into the plot. That was not part of the original story: therefore, the integrity of the storytelling is compromised. Babylon 5 again.

Or, a key development of the story, like the exciting orbital space battle, isn't quite up to the abilities of the FX department. You read it in the book and think - wow! You see it on screen and think ... nah. Blake's 7.

Or, the studio decrees 22 episodes but there's only really plot for 13, plus you have all these actors being paid to act so you really need to give them something to do. To make up for the extra you get endless padding and navel gazing from the characters that makes the viewers so irritated they just don't bother with the next season. Galactica.

Conversely the series is such a cash cow it is kept running long, long past the end of its natural life even when it's begging for euthanasia. Stargate SG1. (Note: may also apply to book series, Ms McCaffrey, Mr Jordan, Mr Herbert, etc.)

Conversely again, which technically brings us back to our starting point but you know what I mean, it's a series so fresh and new that it could run and run - but the idiot studio pulls the plug half way through the first season. Any guesses?

Or it can just take a series a while to get going. Another oft-repeated comment on Charlie's blog, mentioned earlier, where people who hadn't read the post were flocking to defend their favourites shows or attack other people's, was along the lines of "series 2 sagged a little but it really hit its stride with series 3", or "the first few episodes sucked but if you stuck with it then you really got into it ..." I don't have the time, or the inclination, to stick with a sagging series on the off-chance it might improve. I want a book to suck me in on the very first page, and I want to switch on the TV and have my attention hooked at once. Life is too short for bad fiction.

So, if you hadn't gathered by now, my contention is that because TV inevitably depends upon the real world limitations of budget and actors, as a medium for telling a good story it is immediately and by its very nature compromised. It may be compromised massively or very limitedly, and either way it is possible to make programmes that are perfectly watchable and enjoyable even by me. But it is still compromised, in ways books are not. Books have an unlimited FX budget and an infinite cast. TV may be pretty good: books will always be better.

The point of reading or watching SF is the SF. Very often, it's not that an SF show doesn't have SF in it: sometimes it has way too much, at an unexamined, superficial level. A single season can rattle through concepts at breakneck pace, each of them worthy of a novel all to themselves, but giving just enough time to introduce them before moving on to the next episode. While I was writing the novel that is even now in my publisher's inbox, an urban fantasy set in modern-day Salisbury, time and again I was thinking: "aha! I can ..." shortly followed by "... oh, but Buffy or Angel did that." In my novel, this development would have been a major turning point in the plot: my own modest contribution to the century old gestalt of modern science fiction. To Buffy, it was simply a way of getting out of one scrape and into another: they didn't examine it or think about it and had no intention of ever doing so.

Sometimes this is a very good thing indeed: sometimes it accidentally leads to greatness. First example: the TARDIS. This worked because, even though the simplicity of both the police box and the console room were forced on the BBC by limited budget, by their simplicity they became timeless. They were never examined that closely because in the very nature of the series, they didn't need to be. The Doctor is a traveller and a loner: therefore, 99% of the time the TARDIS was the only TARDIS around and the Doctor was the only Time Lord. In each adventure he was almost always stuck in what was, for him, a less technologically advanced society and therefore we never had to look too closely at the implications of the Doctor's own society, the possessors of such mastery of time and space. (And frankly it all went pants when they did.)

Second example: the Star Trek transporter. This was famously introduced because the FX budget didn't cover being able to show ships landing and taking off all the time. But, by the time we reached Voyager a transporter was standard equipment on any starship, even down to shuttlecraft, yet the show never explored the implications of that kind of technology in any kind of depth. I was impressed at one point in Voyager – quite possibly the only point that Voyager impressed me – when the doctor delivers a baby by transporting it straight out of the womb. I like that kind of thinking. (Sadly the child in question grew up to be the utterly dispensable Naomi Wildman but so it goes.) But, in a society that has mastered mass-energy conversion to the point where replicating a perfectly made cup of tea obviously uses less energy than boiling a kettle (because that's what they do), why do they still even bother with turbolifts to get between decks?

Time and again, TVSF bumps into what in storytelling terms is just sloppiness, because those are the inherent limitations of the medium. I enjoy TVSF and I enjoy books, the same way I enjoy pizza and chips and I also enjoy a good garlicy Bolognese that I have lovingly prepared to my exact specifications, washed down with a carefully chosen red wine. I might have the pizza and chips more often – but I still know which is better.

So, because I believe in only offering positive criticism (unless negative is the only viable option, or just more fun), let's look at how TVSF can – or could – do it right.

First, I gladly acknowledge that much TVSF plants seeds that can be further developed in the written form. A lot of my own science fictional development can be traced to the Target Dr Who novelisations. I have also already given examples of where TV series struck science fiction gold.

Sticking with moving pictures, though, one obvious way around the limitations of actors and FX budgets is to do something as an animation. That is why Futurama is so astonishingly good as science fiction. As in a book, an animated character only needs to change when the story requires it, not when the actor gets pregnant or fat or bored.

Futurama is of course obviously a cartoon and I wouldn't want to say that good TVSF can only exist in cartoon form. Let's get a bit ahead of where we are now, technologically. CGI is getting to the point where human actors and collections of pixels could soon be indistinguishable. I want it taken to the next stage – CGI actors that look utterly human but who have never existed before. (Bad luck on the human actors, but it was their career choice [and as someone pointed out after the talk, humans would still be needed for the body mapping].) They could have starring roles in a TV series where they can be watched and enjoyed without any audience preconception creeping in.

Dr Who's concept of regeneration, something else that has entered our culture and which made the show unique, was another of those serendipitous ways of getting round the real-world – in this case, the star of a show badly needing to retire at the height of his show's success. It wouldn't have happened if Dr Who had only existed in book form, but it happened in the series and it was one of the series's defining moments. But, now we're where we are, would it not be cool if in a couple of years Matt Smith were to regenerate into a CGI character? There would be no press releases about his choice of clothing, no scratching of heads and saying "who?" when we hear the good news – no distractions at all, in fact, to being able to sit back and just enjoy the show purely on its merits as a bit of SF story telling. And if they decided to pull another regeneration on us, it would be a complete surprise, in a way that hasn't happened since Hartnell became Troughton (and like Ecclestone was meant to be), not heralded over a year in advance like what's-his-name.

One more way TVSF could tackle some limitations of the medium is the mini-series. The 1984 movie of Dune had fantastic visuals but still sucked golfballs through a hosepipe because the movie had to be butchered down to usual cinema length. Whereas, the 2000 mini-series was actually quite good. It suffered from the occasional reused effect, and the Fremen's CGI blue eyes tended to wink back to normal if the actor turned away from the camera; but because it wasn't a big movie event, it could use cheap character actors, so you weren't distracted by familiar faces; it had the time to explore the source material thoroughly; and it had a definite beginning, middle and end so the cast weren't subject to real world vagaries like dying or getting fired.

So, to sum up: TVSF good, written SF better, any questions?

Friday, March 05, 2010

If I'm ever this publicly wrong, I hope I can be as publicly graceful about admitting it

A.N. Wilson has been one of my least favourite individuals for a very long time. A man with nothing whatsoever useful or informed to say, he has epitomised all that is wrong with luvvie-journalism amongst the Hampstead set, in particular with his habit of popping up as an ever reliable prissy, over-enunciated talking head to do down any kind of religion that doesn't match his aesthetically perfect high church atheism. He has been religion's Brian Sewell, another example of the kind of man Gilbert & Sullivan might have had in mind:
"Of course you will pooh-pooh whatever's fresh and new
and declare it's crude and mean,
For Art stopped short in the cultivated court
of the Empress Josephine."
There's a new translation of the Bible? A new prayer book? Get A.N. Wilson in to be rude about it! I would find myself yelling at the radio as the Today programme played: "you're an atheist! What's it to you that people who actually want Christianity to mean something have written a liturgy that people born this century can understand? You want to dress up in silly robes and spout 17th century English? Be my guest! There's no law to stop you! Have a party at your house! Invite a friend! Invite both of them! But belt up about the rest of us."

Except that ... apparently he's not an atheist any more and I find his account of his reconversion, or deunconversion, really quite moving.

Probably because I happen to agree with a lot of it. Consider lines like:
"... the existence of language is one of the many phenomena - of which love and music are the two strongest - which suggest that human beings are very much more than collections of meat. They convince me that we are spiritual beings, and that the religion of the incarnation, asserting that God made humanity in His image, and continually restores humanity in His image, is simply true. As a working blueprint for life, as a template against which to measure experience, it fits."
Well, quite! What more can I say? (Later edit: the bit that I especially agree with is in bold. The evolution of language and music may or may not have a bearing.)

On other matters I suspect we never will see eye to eye this side of the hereafter, and I'm pretty certain neither of us would ever enjoy having the other to dinner. But this is a very good start.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Come fly with me

This is me, in the front cockpit, flying a glider. I seem to have my left elbow resting nonchalantly on the rim of the cockpit which makes it look a lot more casual than I remember it.

I've just thrown out an old photo album from my childhood, containing mostly lots of not very interesting photos of not very interesting things. These, however, I scanned and kept.

I had a father, grandfather and great-grandfather all in the Dorsets, an infantry regiment, so naturally I decided to go into the RAF. My father puts it down to a desire to assert my independence; I put it down to a desire to fly aeroplanes. My four years in the school CCF got me to the grand rank of Cadet Sergeant with marksman badges for .22 and SLR rifles and, of which I'm most proud, my solo gliding wings (which very clearly say AIR CADETS just in case anyone in the grown-up world takes them seriously).

The week was spent in August 1982 at Predannack Airfield near the Lizard, in Cornwall, bunking in the evenings at RNAS Culdrose (which, yes, I know is a naval establishment). I don't know quite how the instructors did it but it was obvious in retrospect that the first few days were spent assessing the material at hand, and after that they concentrated on the ones most likely to make it, even though everyone got a more or less equal dose of flying time and ground duties. For some reason I was one of the chosen.

The instructor who adopted me might have seen me as his personal project. I remember him as a bad tempered, sour old git but he got results where a nicer, gentler instructor would probably have failed. On the last day of the week, I flew the required solo around the field and here is me being presented with my wings.

My smile would probably have been quite silly under any circumstances but it becomes even sillier because the distinguished looking senior military gent giving me my wings is my own father.

The family were staying with friends nearby and had come to visit me a few days before. The officer in charge of us didn't take long to work out that being presented with wings by a real live soldier, a Brigadier who had actually fought for his country in anger, was a lot better than the alternative which was getting the wings from a part time Flight Lieutenant (Reserve). My father could always be relied on to take a smart blazer and tie even on holiday, so having something appropriate to wear wasn't a problem. It was probably the first time he had ever actually seen me in uniform and he said that my too-small beret made me look like an Israeli.

And here are the wings themselves, with the qualifying log book pages. Still got 'em.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Nan the Great

So, Nan lived to meet three directly descended great-grandchildren and enjoy being able to have conversations with a teenage step-great-grandchild. Somehow, being a great-Nan she became known among her youngest descendants as Nan the Great, and quite right too. She predated the Russian Revolution by 8 years and outlived the Soviet Union by 21. Her aunt once met someone who could remember seeing the fleet return from Trafalgar. Less than a fortnight before she was born, Blériot flew across the English Channel, and within three quarters of Nan's total lifetime, Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Well into her seventies, she was jetting around the world herself.

100 years, 6 months, 12 days.

Nan loved to socialise and to network. Even when she broke her leg in her nineties, it took just minutes to establish that she knew the mother of the ambulance lady. Her friends were all of a similar background and nature to her – impeccably upper middle class and by today's standards very often quite dotty.

The family fortune was a memory but the breeding and manners lived on, combined with flashes of attitude from a bygone era. When hospitalised for a period a few years ago, she could still unblushingly refer to her doctor of Asian descent as a little brown man. (For the record she had often had people of similar ethnicity to stay as house guests.) Her idea of an ideal conversation was one that wittered on and on and on and preferably didn't touch on anything at all that's important. Any attempt to make it relevant or meaningful had to be resisted by dragging in yet another anecdote about someone no one but the speaker had ever heard of who did something utterly unimportant. I spent a lot of my prep school weekends with Nan; it may be why I find it very easy to stay silent and generally tune out if the point of a conversation isn't at least looming on the long distance radar after about a minute.

But let me not for a minute do her down.

My grandfather spent most of World War 2 in the Far East fighting the Japanese and having a whale of a time. Nan's memories of the war were always less rosy. His rather tactless letters back home were full of news about what fun he was having and very short of any share of the money he was earning to help keep his wife and child. So she crossed the Atlantic twice with her young daughter during the U-boat crisis, seeking a better life in Canada, not finding it and coming home again. Peacetime did nothing to reduce the long separations. She would have looked at today's 6-month tours of duty in Afghanistan and laughed a hollow laugh. After the war she found herself having to raise a mentally handicapped son; and when Granddad had a stroke in the 1960s she had to look after him too. She can be forgiven some quirks.

The funeral was held yesterday, in the Trinity Chapel of Salisbury Cathedral, where she had spent many years as a guide: quite by coincidence it was 35 years to the day after her husband's own send-off. It was the first decently sunny day for ages and the chapel, the pointy bit at the end of the building, is light and airy and full of space – the perfect setting. The music of the organ filled an almost empty cathedral, which has always looked good but at lunchtime on a term-time weekday looks absolutely stunning.

Nan's first intimations of mortality began over a decade ago when my parents went to New Zealand for a few weeks and Nan became convinced she wouldn't last until they got back. So, I was summoned to discuss her funeral arrangements with the then Vicar of the Close, who could barely keep a straight face at this obviously hale and hearty old lady convinced her time was nigh. All that really came away from that meeting was (a) no, she did not want "Candle in the Wind" and (b) I was to select and read a suitable Bible passage – she trusted my judgement and would be in no position to complain if she didn't like it. We managed both of those stipulations, and the passage in question was 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Being able to say "We believe that Jesus died and rose again", with your amplified voice echoing around a cathedral, is a powerful experience.

I also designed the order of service for the funeral, which she might just have understood as a concept; and I downloaded an MP3 of "The Road to the Isles" from Amazon to burn a CD to play at the Committal, which I would never have been able to explain to her in a thousand years. I mention all this because she was the one who set me on the path to computer literacy in the first place, by giving me the money for my 21st birthday with which I bought my first computer, my faithful and beloved Amstrad PCW. She was in tune with the modern world enough to ask me once to demonstrate 'an internet'. I chose the National Rail website as most likely to be understood as something useful. I asked her to name a town. "Salisbury." I asked her for another. "Portsmouth." I asked for a date. "Tomorrow." Click, click, click ... And behold, I could show her that there was a train from Salisbury to Portsmouth at 10.30 the next day.

"Well, I knew that," she said and thereby dismissed the Internet revolution from her consideration.

She might have enjoyed the slideshow at the reception afterwards: a PowerPoint montage of pictures that ran on a couple of laptops, showing photos of her from babe in arms to old lady in receipt of her telegram from the Queen (who looks almost equally grumpy in her picture). I had a brief crisis of conscience in assembling the pictures: should I include the arty one of her in her twenties, tastefully naked sitting on a rock by the sea (which really can't have been very comfortable)? Tact won out over truth: besides, there were a lot of her contemporaries among the guests and I wouldn't have wanted them on my conscience.

RIP, Nan, and I promise not to tune out when we meet again.